The Muddy, Bloody Truth about Grace

It was difficult to find a place to park my car in the fray. As I walked through the sea of muddy, cold, bloody young people, the scene was shocking. This was ground zero. I got as close as I could and fixed my eyes down the street on a line of police officers armored head to toe in riot gear. The crowd is defiant at first but then starts to dissolve quickly by the bark and the sharp teeth of a police dog being guided through the melee.

An ambulance pulled up to the curb and there is a young man who is obviously embarrassed, hiding out in the open as his peers record every second of his worst moments for the world to see. The paramedics finally get him on the gurney and I see his face. His eyes are swollen and soaked with tears, his nose is crooked, he still tries to hide his face that is already hidden by a dark, crimson mask of mud and blood. I couldn’t believe all of this was happening in my front yard.

The Grandview party at IUPattys 2015.

This was not the recent riots in Baltimore (or Ferguson or New York) this was a celebration of IUPattys Day, a student-driven holiday on campus at Indiana University of Pennsylvania where I am currently in mission. This year the new apartment complex on my block was the site of the biggest party of the weekend. Increasingly, this area is privy to more student foot traffic and as far as my yard is concerned, more student trash.

An IUPattys riot from 2014

Every week we walk the grounds of our house to find beer cans, cigarette packs, lots and lots of empty Sheetz food containers, bottles, bags, shoes, etc. After IUPattys it was exceptionally worse. Not only was there more than a bag of trash scattered in the yard but our picket fence took some serious abuse. Planks were kicked in, points were cracked off, and our ceramic owl left face down in the grass.

My broken fence.

The question that arises as I reach down again and again and pick up those beer cans and try to piece my fence back together is through the pain of this destruction, do I love my college students any less? The quick answer is I can’t and I won’t, the long answer is more complicated and perhaps will help look upon current events with a little more love.

Young people have an incredible amount of energy and a penchant for wanting be involved in something. At IUPattys, that involvement means destruction. Recently, in Baltimore the assembly had a different cause with very different emotion, passion, and energy behind it, but the result was still the same, destruction.

Watching the narrative of a burning Baltimore play out across multiple news platforms still makes it difficult to see the hearts of those rioting and looting. Still some watch these scenes and what they see is an enemy. The question then is how does Jesus call us to interact with our enemies?

Read Luke 6. Jesus’s claims about our property were something he wasn’t afraid to uphold himself. He wouldn’t tell us to offer up the other cheek without being willing to take his lashes and he wouldn’t tell us to offer up our cloak and tunic without being willing himself to hang naked on that cross for all to see. The protestors very well might be criminals and criminals take and destroy, but are we spending too much time counting what they’ve taken and not asking what we could be giving?

Volunteers in Baltimore cleaning up on the morning after.

Grace is the first gift that comes to mind. We do not get to chose how the oppressed and the fearful react to oppression and fear. We also do not have the advantage that God has by seeing exactly what is in the heart of those breaking windows. However, we can remind them that Jesus died for every shatter and his love is always theirs for the taking.

Ears that hear might be another gift worth giving. Destruction and demonstration like we saw in Baltimore screams that they have something to say and are not being heard. Every demonstration wasn’t violent. The voice of Baltimore and other communities in the nation crying out is complex and requires attentive ears.

Then what do we do with all of this energy? The energy of our young people needs guidance and leadership. Without leadership they can leave worthy causes like the muddy, bloody student on the lawn in front of my house.

“If you’ve got the energy to destroy, you’ve got the energy to rebuild.” – Local Baltimore activist and radio host Farajii Muhammad

That is why I loved seeing Baltimore city councilmen praising the hundreds of peaceful protesters and de-escalators, watching Ray Lewis shrieking with grief that the vision of Baltimore’s builders is being ignored, and witnessing community volunteers with brooms in their hands sweeping up the ashes on the morning after.

Do the flames in Baltimore make you love those people any less? I hope not. My job on campus at IUP is to not love the partiers any less. Especially when it costs me something, my job is to give them grace, a kind ear, and guidance. However, more often than not, it also means cleaning up their trash.

A familiar can in our yard.

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Image-bearing when not child-bearing

For the past 10 years I’ve had a love/hate relationship with Mother’s Day. Ever since my brother died it’s become a very bittersweet day for my mom and our whole family, and it’s made me increasingly aware of how many women in my life experience some kind of struggle in regards to motherhood. I’ve recently written two pieces (Created #LikeAGirl and Periods, EW!) about women bearing the image of God in our ability to create life, and I also want to talk about the other side of this aspect of womanhood. Many women do not have children or are unable to have as many children as they desire. I know several dear friends who have grieved miscarriages, who struggle with fertility, who are unmarried, or who don’t have the heart’s desire to have children at all. There are many reasons why women may not be mothers, and I want those sisters to rest assured that they are equally loved and equally entrusted with the image of their Creator regardless of their parental status.

There are several barren women in scripture, and many of whom go on to have miraculous children. Sarah (Gen 21), Hannah (1 Sam. 1), the Shunammite woman (2 Kings 4), and of course Elizabeth and Mary (Luke 1 and 2) are among the top examples. These women show us that God is merciful to His daughters who are without children and does not treat them as broken or inferior. Rather, they are vessels for God’s power to be shown more fully and to show that God is the one who calls forth life, it is not a product of human effort.

 

Lest we think that God’s ultimate purpose is for every woman to have children, let’s look at some other passages on this topic. In the Old Testament, Esther’s story does not involve motherhood as she intercedes to save the Jews from genocide (the book of Esther). We see no mention of her going on to have children, the point of the story is her actions as a woman and leader, not as a mother. Ruth eventually has children and is an important figure in the lineage of Jesus (book of Ruth and Matt. 1) but her story revolves around her chapter as a childless widow whom God receives into His covenant community and eventually restores her to a family. Again, the focus is on her faith and life, her worth is not contingent on child-bearing.

In the New Testament, Anna the prophetess in Luke 2:36-38 is one of my favorite biblical figures. The text doesn’t give us absolute confirmation that she was childless, but it focuses on the fact that she serves in the temple full-time. The fact that Luke doesn’t mention her parental status at all but only talks about her ministry at least shows us that women have valuable roles and gifts to offer to God outside of bearing children. While we know that she had been a widow for decades and must have struggled with that loss, we see God calling her into vocational ministry and blessing her faithfulness with being one of the first people to meet and recognize the Christ child.

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Priscilla is another woman whose motherhood is not mentioned and who is also active in ministry. We see Paul meeting Priscilla and her husband, Aquila, in Acts 18 and they are greeted in 3 subsequent epistles (Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Timothy.) It is certainly possible that they had children, but Paul focuses on their work of church leadership and hospitality and always names them together as a team. Whether or not they are parents seems irrelevant to what they brought to the Body of Christ. Paul also talks about singleness (and by implication childlessness) as ideal in 1 Corinthians 7 and recommends it to both men and women as the best state in which to serve God. A clear implication for women is that they can fully reflect and serve Christ without having children.

My hope in all of this is to encourage the Church to affirm and value all of our sisters and to shield from shame or despair those that are not mothers or for whom this is a complex experience. While child-bearing is a unique office given only to women, we see that God endows us with creativity and productivity that extends beyond reproduction. Childbirth is a gift, not a right or conditional command. All women are daughters that glorify and honor the Triune God, which includes women who are single, full-time mothers, those that have dealt with struggle and disappointment, and those that nurture and create in other areas of the creation. Each has a valuable role to play in the Kingdom, and a glimpse of God to show to the world.

My dear friend and co-laborer, Rev. Karen Stevenson

Transitioning to a life of service

In just a few short weeks, millions of brand new college graduates will be hitting the “real world.” So in our ministry it has been difficult to avoid the onslaught of anxieties that accompany this tremendous life transition. We have started a conversation about what the church can offer a transitioning college graduate. Our hope is that these words supply comfort and hope that, amidst the chaos of change, a loving sanctuary awaits. However, solely envisioning what the church can offer you might be a tad short-sighted. So on top of the consistency and community the church provides it also has a call for you as you head into post-college life. I’ll give you a hint: it may not involve weeks or maybe months of binging Netflix. So let’s look ahead and wonder what is it that you, as young adults, can offer the church?

Philly Project 2014 Painting Ladders

Hands and Feet

If you are not moving far away from home (which many won’t) or immediately beginning gainful employment (which many don’t), post-college life can be the first time in a long time that you don’t have project groups to meet with, papers due, or textbooks to read. This is an incredible opportunity to explore longer term missions work!

You probably aren’t strangers to the weekend blitz builds or alternative spring breaks that were offered in college, but now could be the best time to go exploring God’s creation and God’s calling on your life with longer missions engagements. For the last two years, a student we met at one of our campus ministry summer projects has been abroad serving in a country they’d never been to. They had done mission trips in college but wanted to find out more about their personal calling as well as get a taste of what it’s like to be grounded and committed to serving a place. God calls us not only to vocations but to places and the hope is that, wherever you go, even if it’s a new place, you will be a blessing.

For our church, as supporters of this student’s mission, this means our arms are now lovingly extended and wrapped around the people in that country this young person is serving! All of a sudden our global missions reach has increased by leaps and bounds. There are hundreds of quality missions organizations out there. Do some Googling and be open to a world of possibilities!

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Questions

If you are on the verge of graduation, I have no doubt that you have been bombarded with questions like, “What are you going to do with that major?” or “What do you think the next five years holds?” I can already sense your heart rate going up. Well it’s time to fire back some questions of your own. One beautiful thing about young adult Christians, especially those who became Christians during college, is that you do not have it all figured out. What exactly does The Bible mean when it talks about God’s glory? How does having “Christ in me” change my life? How do I actively engage in a ministry of reconciliation?

Chances are there are wonderful people in your church that have well-thought out answers to questions like these that are the product of years of wrestling and praying with God. Sometimes though, those answers and insights lay stagnant. Paul constantly writes reminders of the Gospel in his letters. Have you ever heard the phrase, “Preach the Gospel to yourself every day.”? People need to be reminded of what they believe! Inviting your church community to enter into these big questions with you is an invitation for them to be reminded of God’s goodness, purposes, mercy, grace, etc. Go to adult Sunday school classes, Bible studies, and small groups and bring your questions, your church will thank you!

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Vision for the future

I have mixed feelings about calling our young adults “The Future of the Church.” In many ways, you are that. Literally, you will probably out live many of the people older than you in the church. In the future, you will be the church. However, you are the church right now!

God’s house is multigenerational and God wants collaboration amongst generations. You have the distinct benefit of a lack of experience. You haven’t been to years of vision conferences and church board meetings. You haven’t seen brilliant ideas be employed poorly or seen God transform not-so-brilliant ideas into fruitful ministries. Your dreams for your church may not be new. You may have an idea that has been presented years ago when it wasn’t the right time to employ it, but this could be the perfect time for it to work! Sometimes ignorance comes with courage and with fresh eyes can come creativity, ingenuity, and innovation! I wonder what unique perspective you can offer your community? Seek out venues where you can have a voice. Solicit responsibilities in the church. You do not have to wait to be a culture maker!

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Periods, “Ew!”

 Ew 2

Most women remember when they first got their period. More often than not, it was an embarrassing and mildly traumatizing experience. I remember asking my mom how long I would have to deal with this and thinking that menopause sounded awfully far away. “You mean I have to experience this for DECADES???” The average woman feels inconvenienced by and sometimes plagued by menstruation. It can be painful, uncomfortable and inconvenient, and we are often embarrassed and ashamed of it. Culturally we are taught to hide it. Feminine products base their marketing campaigns around how their brands will help women be discreet and act as if their period isn’t even happening. In many ways we believe that it’s gross and something that we have to overcome.

dearperiod_1.2_905-1_905   dearperiod_2.2_905_905

But what does God think about it? In Leviticus 15 we find God’s laws for both men and women on how to respond to bodily discharges. If you’ve ever doubted whether God does indeed care about everything, read this chapter. God is so closely involved with His children that He even gives us guidelines for how to handle our bodies when they do weird and unpredictable things. God isn’t ashamed or embarrassed by us, He created us to be physical beings and equips us for life on earth. When we read through this chapter, especially with our 21st century lens, it’s easy for women to feel a renewed sense of shame about menstruation.

19 “When a woman has a discharge, and the discharge in her body is blood, she shall be in her menstrual impurity for seven days, and whoever touches her shall be unclean until the evening. 20 And everything on which she lies during her menstrual impurity shall be unclean. Everything also on which she sits shall be unclean. 21 And whoever touches her bed shall wash his clothes and bathe himself in water and be unclean until the evening. 22 And whoever touches anything on which she sits shall wash his clothes and bathe himself in water and be unclean until the evening. 23 Whether it is the bed or anything on which she sits, when he touches it he shall be unclean until the evening. 24 And if any man lies with her and her menstrual impurity comes upon him, he shall be unclean seven days, and every bed on which he lies shall be unclean.

On the surface this feels like women are to be shunned from the community during their periods and are contaminated in some way. We should first note that there was more than one form of uncleanness. In this case women were ceremonially unclean but that did not mean they were sinning against God. They could not participate in religious ceremonies but that did not imply that they were morally unclean in God’s eyes.

If we continue reading through Leviticus, chapter 17 sheds more light on this conversation. The passage centers on eating animal blood, which God forbids.

14 For the life of every creature is its blood: its blood is its life. Therefore I have said to the people of Israel, You shall not eat the blood of any creature, for the life of every creature is its blood. Whoever eats it shall be cut off.

This command is about eating practices, but reveals a profound truth. Blood is a sacred thing because it represents the life that only God can give. To consume animal blood is to act in the place of God and to take ownership of a gift that belongs solely to the Creator. Blood is not gross, it is our very life.

If animal blood holds these sacred properties, how much more so does menstrual blood? This is the substance that brings new life into the world and which contains incredible power to nurture and sustain. It is the representation of the way that women bear God’s image in our unique ability to create life and bring something new into the world that has never been before. (For more on this, see my post “Created #LikedAGirl”) Rather than God commanding the Israelites to abhor women’s menstruation, I think God is commanding a reverence for blood that is sacred. God is the one that brings life into the world, and menstrual blood is evidence of the power and value of life. Women were to be set apart during their periods because something special was taking place as their bodies mirrored God’s image.

As Satan is threatened by women and the way they are like God, I think he is behind our struggle to view menstruation positively. He wins when we are angry and annoyed at the way in which God has set us apart. Think about how many women loath their periods, how many times women say out loud, “I hate my period.” When we are ashamed and embarrassed about our bodies in this way, we are experiencing shame over God’s image within us. Take some time to reread Luke 8:40-48 and watch how Jesus does not withdraw or rebuke the woman with the flow of blood who touches Him (making Him and anyone that she touched in the crowd unclean), but heals her and publicly restores her to community. The Lord draws near to His daughters, equipping us to handle the hard aspects of reproduction and blessing us with His creativity. Let’s stop believing the lie that we are gross and rejected, and encourage one another to believe the truth that we are called and loved. For both men and women, let’s affirm the sacred gift that God has placed inside women’s bodies, and rejoice in the beauty and power of life.

Menstrual cycle

Seeing the church through the lens of transition

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As a student, you have faced a changing cultural climate in higher education. New apartment-style residence halls create an isolating venue that inhibits social interaction. Student loan debt and a difficult job market make it less financially viable to embark out into the world completely on your own after graduation. Students are spending more and more time in college changing majors, adding minors, taking time off, etc. So this life season, when students used to be truly discovering who they are, is spent raising more questions than answers. A space that is meant to unwrap what you will do with the rest of your life is now a space to prepare for a consistent flood of life changes. The sage words of my old high school chemistry teacher still ring in my ears, “I’ve had this job for 30 years, your generation simply won’t experience that. You’ll be lucky to hold a job for more than one or two years at a time.”

As you are faced with a transition out of college, carrying these heavy burdens, where can you look for comfort and guidance? Let me offer you some practical functions of the church that comforted me during the most nomadic seasons of my life.

MLB: AUG 06 Diamondbacks at Pirates

Church as a home base

I was in a unique situation leaving college. Not only was I wadding through what life post-graduation meant, I was also still dealing with the recent death of my father. This changed the entire dynamic of my family. In addition to financial concerns, it made sense for me to move back home and live with my mom for her as well as my emotional support. For better or for worse, I was home for the foreseeable future. I decided if I was going to be here, I was going to attend worship service every Sunday and find out what it is like to be committed to a home church. I did it, and started reading my Bible. I began forming relationships with the pastor and other church members. I was establishing stability and strength during a season where constant change made that rare.

Having any form of consistency was beneficial, but creating it through a loving body of Christ that was always willing to serve me was transformational. And not just for me. My mom started noticing that I had a happiness and wholeness that she was struggling to find through her season of grief. She soon started coming with me to church and found that same strength and consistency through a community of her own. She also found her savior and accepted Jesus into her heart.

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Church as a mirror

This stability and consistency I found in church also provided space for me to put some more flesh on my self-identity. Being with other believers and being disciplined with my study of scripture brought me closer to God and gave me a better picture of God as creator. I still had questions after college about who I was and what I was supposed to be doing with my life, and while I didn’t find many specific answers (you can spend your whole life looking for those) I did find a deeper understanding of the ways God created and gifted me. My new found lack of school work post graduation freed me up to study scripture, the nature of God, and myself. The church encouraged me to be faithful in that journey.

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Church as a social network

Isolation is not just socially and emotionally harmful; it can also be vocationally harmful. One thing I learned about college students while in my communication major (one that relies heavily on relationship building) is that the majority of us are bad at networking. We are bad at forming supportive, beneficial relationships. While in graduate school my church and campus fellowship not only supplied the consistency and self discovery I mentioned before, but it supplied contacts in the ministry and communication fields that led to internships and eventually my current job.

God designed us to be in community, and that community can be a blessing to us and, ultimately, can be a blessing to the nations. The church is filled with believers in all walks of life and all areas of vocation. Just imagine the area of creation God is sending you out into! God created the church to bring flourishing to our lives. So as you “pass the peace” this Sunday, don’t be afraid to receive it as well.